Posts Tagged ‘Piracy’

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The Music Industry is Dying. I’ll Get the Shovels and Champagne.

January 28, 2011


Robert Verbruggen over at National Review Online asks “Can We Save the Music Business?” The first obvious question is “Why?”

[This post is nothing more than a reprint of my overly-long comment left at NRO. I’ve emphasized a few things with BOLD and corrected a couple of grammatical errors, but otherwise it’s intact.]

An “effective” plan?

I don’t know how anybody could willingly believe that the music industry legislating itself back into business with the aid of an all too cooperative government will actually save them for eventual implosion. All this would do is stick them on life-support on the taxpayer’s dime.

Equally stupid is the assumption that a graduated response, especially one that aids one industry (recording) while punishing another (ISPs) would be any less troublesome than straight-out “deputizing ISPs.” If both the government and the entertainment industries are involved, there’s is no way that any internet watchdog can ever be considered “independent,” as is dubiously stated in relation to France’s current anti-piracy program.

Speaking of which, you cite a 53% reduction in infringement (at least according those polled) but fail to provide any numbers showing a correlating rise in music sales. My guess is that there will be little change or at best, a short-lived uptick while everybody figures out how to get back into the free music business. This may come as a shock to the record labels, but it won’t surprise anyone who is aware of the fact that a pirated album does not equal a lost sale.

More troubling is the fact that your internet usage information is now in the hands of both the government and some very self-interested parties, both of whom have shown an ugly willingness to abuse the public’s trust.

Every dollar spent (taxpayer/music industry) on combating piracy is a dollar wasted, one which would have gone to better use pretty much anywhere else. Every time a file sharing service or data hosting site gets shut down, another two pop up. The music industry continues to view online piracy as the equivalent of a guy selling burned discs out of his trunk. They cannot seem to understand that this is millions of individuals acting alone, rather than under the control of some overriding directive.

They also don’t seem to understand that these “pirates” aren’t making any money off these “transactions.” What little they do understand of it causes them to scapegoat hosting services and ISPs. They know this isn’t directly their fault but I think they believe that going after services earning money will allow them to show some return on their lawsuit investments.

The more draconian the action, the further underground file sharing goes. New hosting will pop up to replace RapidShare, MegaUpload, et al. Limewire will be succeeded by others. With every step they fall further behind. Hosts will operate under masked IP addresses and innocuous URLs. And when they finally do decide to sue or kick someone off the internet, the only people they can victimize are those who are that many steps behind themselves. This is why they end up dragging clueless grandmothers and 8-year-olds into court.

Once everything is disguised enough, they’ll start booting people off for false positives. The government and the record labels have already proven they’re far from tech savvy and will start harassing citizens who’ve never considered piracy just because of a spike in usage.

They also fail to understand that kicking people off the internet will do nothing to increase their sales. Do they honestly believe that Joe Q. Pirate is going to trot to the nearest store and make up for his infringement by purchasing several shiny plastic discs? He’s not going to be able to buy digitally after all. And trust me, he’ll find another way to get back online. He may be dumb enough to get caught but he’s still smarter and faster that the ad hoc committee pursuing him.

There’s no equivalent for “free.” Just because someone downloaded Lady Gaga’s latest for free is not an indicator that they would have purchased it if there were no alternatives. Lots of people get stuff they don’t particularly want or need just because it’s free. It’s like going to a garage sale and picking up a half dozen drill bits and some Cussler paperbacks from the “free” box. It doesn’t necessarily follow that Black and Decker lost a sale or that I would have grabbed two Cussler books down at Barnes and Noble otherwise. Maybe I just figured you can’t have too many drill bits and I was tired of reading well-written books.

And as for the “poor artists” the labels are constantly using as penniless strawmen in their arguments? Well, he’s got fewer options and potential customers thanks to their actions. Fewer hosting sites. Fewer people online.

The claim that artists somehow deserve to get paid is just plain stupid. That’s a holdout from the good old days of the music industry, where they’d state that as an excuse to levy fees on blank tapes and CDs. But they’ve never been too keen on actually paying their artists. There are hundreds of stories of bands that got screwed by their labels, whose unrecouped amounts never seem to go down and how clever accounting and label finance opacity has allowed them to hide their gains from the prying eyes of their stable of musicians.

Look at the wonderful things Warner Bros. did to Too Much Joy.

Not only that, but if you’re getting into art to get paid, you’re doing it wrong. If you manage to make a living at it, congratulations. You’re part of the 1%. No guidance counselor ever recommended a student drop out of school and buy a guitar. No parent ever breathed a sigh of relief when their offspring told them they were quitting college to form a band. No one owes an artist a living wage. Art is supported, not purchased. The record labels have a hard time differentiating between “product” and “art,” which explains why most of their output is considered lousy.

I’m not saying music should be free or that piracy is ok as long as it’s from a normally unprofitable field. I’m just saying that demanding upfront that your contribution to the music world immediately start showing positive returns is an annoying combination of false entitlement and ignorance.

This sentence is troubling: “...if we want artists — and, by extension, everyone who works with and for artists — to be paid for their creations…” This is part of the music industry’s problem. While piracy is bad for their business, and by extension, artists, ensuring that everyone else on the overextended food chain gets their cut is unsustainable in this day and age.

The only artists that can feed this extended family at this point in time are the top 5-10% of their roster. Everyone else gets to wait for minute amounts of royalties to make their way down from the top, spending years attempting to get recouped and finally start making money on their own.

At some point you, the artist, get a small slice of whatever's left after taking care of everyone else.

With the distribution options available to artists today (bandcamp, Facebook, Myspace, Beatport, Amazon, iTunes, etc.), I see no reason why any of them need a major label to act on their behalf. Some people (mainly record execs) argue that without their assistance they’ll never get heard. They tend to assume radio airplay is still the only game in town. (And it won’t be for much longer, not with all the fees being extracted by ASCAP, BMI, PRS, etc.)

But those people, the “everyone” that “works with or for” artists are the ones doing most of the complaining. They’re swiftly realizing that they could easily lose their non-essential positions. The artists themselves rarely complain about piracy as most of them realize it will only alienate part of their potential audience. (See also: Metallica.) The few artists that do complain are from the stratospheric layer of fully-recouped and highly successful acts. Bono (and U2’s management) spend a lot of time griping about the unavailability of “ivory backscratcher” money. Bono has even gone so far as to ALMOST recommend we follow China’s lead in privacy violation and institute their internet tracking program. (He stops just short of siding with one of the world leaders in human rights violations in his NY Times editorial. He just kind of throws it out there and, I assume, hopes that our overzealous government will run with the ball.)

Now, like many people on the other side of a long-winded rant, you’re probably asking yourself if I have any solutions to this dilemma rather than just reciting a litany of problems. It’s a good question. I don’t see any. The industry gouged customers, screwed their artists and tried to sue their way back into profitability rather than actually deal with the shift to digital. The only option they have is to deal with what’s left of their market. Short of building a time machine, heading back 15 years and trying again, I really don’t see that they’ve got many options left.

But there’s a larger question that rarely gets asked in these sort of editorials: WHY do we need to save the recording industry? Who, beyond those employed by it, really needs them to continue on in any capacity, much less in a legislated pseudo-return to the money-burning days of the CD?

I honestly don’t think that their collapse would do any lasting damage to the economy or society as a whole. The music industry likes to pretend (and are aided in their delusion by pieces like this) that they are the gatekeepers for ALL OF MUSIC and that without their endless generosity over the years, we would be a cultural black hole.

There are thousands of bands waiting to fill the void should they finally collapse and thousands of indie labels, self-producers and hosting services will to handle the distribution. Who knows? Radio could even re-emerge once freed from acrimonious performance rights groups. The only ones feeling the pain would be the former employees and the upper echelon of bands, who without a label-supplied collection of flunkies, would be forced to do some of the heavy lifting themselves.

The last question is for you, Robert. Why this sudden show of support for over-reaching and potentially dangerous legislation? In fact, why bother to stand up for the music industry at all? I can’t see anything else in your archive that would lead me to the conclusion that you’re a major label apologist. I’ve read other pieces of yours that I’ve enjoyed and agreed with but this one just seems to be horribly misguided at best, and incredibly ill-informed at worst.

I’d recommend checking out Techdirt.com where Mike Masnick has been putting together a solid body of work refuting pretty much every point in this piece and others like it. With a couple of quick topic searches, you can probably gain a better understanding of how the music world will continue to function just fine without the major labels.

-CLT

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Whitey, JK Rowling and How Not to Operate the Internet

January 8, 2010

Un fucking good musician.

Whitey
Electro-rocker supreme and all-around good guy, Whitey has been producing high-quality music since 2004. Despite an appearance on the Grand Theft Auto IV soundtrack, this hasn’t caused him any sort of trouble in the “too much of it and what to do with it” sort of way.

In fact, he’s not even signed to a label at this moment, which is a damn shame. As Overconfident Orientalist astutely pointed out in the Heavy Rotation Vol. 30 comment thread, 1.) he’s “bleeding talent all over the internet,” and 2.) everything other than The Light at the End of the Tunnel is a Train is impossible to get ahold of.

This may be due to his lack of label support. But this may also be due to Whitey’s lapse of judgment.

Here’s the situation: Whitey’s follow-up, Great Shakes, was due to be released in 2007. However, some piece of shit publicist decided to dump his unreleased album on the internets well before Whitey was ready to release it. It’s a fucked up situation. The whole story (more or less) is here, along with a great interview, in which Whitey does not cease drinking or smoking once.

Whitey’s response was to pull the album and rework some of the songs, which would be released under a new title supposedly in 2008. As this is 2010, we all can figure out what happened. No album yet and most of his catalog is now only available in illicit pirate form.

Without a doubt, a fucked-up situation. But let’s take a look at things from another perspective…

Has also written under the name "Tits McGee."

J.K. Rowling
As the author behind the multi-million-dollar cottage industry that is magical, scar-faced teens, Rowling is also on the run from the spectre of piracy. According to an article at CNN.com, “J.K Rowling has thus far refused to make any of her Harry Potter books available digitally because of piracy fears.”

Basically, Rowling has decided that the possibility of piracy would damage her immense wealth and therefore, will not give her fans the opportunity to shower her with more money by purchasing yet another version of the same book they probably already have in hardcover, softcover and collected special editions.

This is a pretty typical response from most hugely successful authors and their respective publishers. They won’t sell e-books because 1.) they don’t like the price point, which is driven by intense competition and the lack of any real distribution cost and 2.) the pirates will win (again).

So by not providing an electronic version, Rowling has cut herself completely out of a market and wishes to lay it all at the feet of faceless, nameless internet thugs who only wish to take and take and take.

The Fancy Plans Art Department once again defines "adequate..."

“Lost Sales”
Here’s where both of these artists converge. On one hand, we have a truly talented artist who is underexposed and lacking in distribution “muscle.” On the other hand, we have J.K. Rowling. Both are concerned that their product has been devalued by being passed around the internet without a price tag.

In Whitey’s case, he decided to cancel the release of Great Shakes. Other artists have done the same when their albums were leaked. In Rowling’s case, she won’t even put the product out. But why?

Lost sales.”

Let’s say some die-hard Potterist decides to bust out the OCR software and scan in one of her books. After all the work of scanning and processing, they dump their labor of love over at the nearest Geocities LiveJournal Rowling fanclub site. Somebody else slaps it onto the nearest torrent site and the numbers come rolling back.

Rowling opens up her email one day and is alerted that 10,000 “illegal” electronic versions have been downloaded in the last day over at the Piratebay. In her mind (and her publisher’s), she has just “lost” 10,000 sales.

But she hasn’t. To assume that every one of those downloaders would have purchased a copy, if available is not just ignorant; it’s arrogant. Let’s be a little more realistic and say 5% would have purchased a copy. So she lost 500 sales.

Let’s repeat that together for clarity: SHE LOST 500 SALES. Read it again. J.K. Rowling, by not offering an electronic version of her book, lost 500 sales. She can blame it on piracy all she wants, but by not providing an e-book, all she guarantees is that she’ll never make a single dollar or pound or whatever from fans who wish to buy an electronic version.

Whitey is making the same mistake. Rather than just releasing the album and relying on interested fans to pick it up, he pulled it instead. This only guaranteed that the only version of Great Shakes available would never make him any money. His EPs are impossible to find. You can get a copy of the Individuals EP from a UK shop, purchased in pounds. That’s it. And that’s assuming the record store’s website and database are up-to-date.

He should have just released the album or sold individual tracks through Amazon or his MySpace site or pretty much anywhere that would host them (Beatport, etc.) Instead, he tries to create artificial scarcity by refusing to put his official Whitey stamp on the pirated material.

The Fancy Plans Art Dept. may now consider themselves on "adminstrative leave" pending their upcoming dismissals.

The Point to All This Rambling
The various media forces need to understand that they can’t stop or contain piracy. Thousands of small, unsigned artists are releasing their music for free and providing premium packages to earn money. Touring and ancillary businesses are the name of the game.

Authors are releasing free PDF versions of the same books they’re selling on Amazon and watching sales increase rather than disappear.

The best thing you can do in this day and age is put out a cheap (or free) electronic version of your creations as soon as possible. Sure it will be pirated. But it will also get your name out and your talent in front of eyes and ears you’ll never reach in the local brick-and-mortar store.

And please don’t give us an inferior product. Big media pushers are always tainting their electronic products with crippling DRM, bullshit EULAs and limited transferability. Why would anyone want to pay more for an electronic file that is more limited and less useful than the one they can get for free?

Why would I spend $1.29 to get a song that I can keep on only one hard drive and transfer to only one mp3 player (if that)? If I get the pirated version, I can dump it on all the mp3 players and computers in the house. I can stream it to my PS3 or move the file there as well. I can burn it to as many CDs as I want.

These industries need to stop presenting litigation and legislation as a business plan. If your future efforts in the digital market consist mainly of suing grandmothers and holding bitchfests on Capitol Hill, your industry can’t die fast enough.

Stop treating your fans as thieves and stop wishing you could turn back the clock. Make the most of what little time your industry has left. The more you attempt to wrest every dollar out of every person out there, the more animosity and contempt you earn from the next generation of disposable income.

Good luck in the future, Whitey. If anyone deserves a big break, it’s you.

J.K.: Just go count your money somewhere out of the limelight for a while and refrain from issuing ill-informed opinions. People liked you better when you were a surprising success story, rather than a petulant millionaire.

What Makes It Worth Reading All the Way Through
Another kickass track by Whitey, which can only be found on YouTube. (Case in point…)

-CLT